Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger
When 1965 dawned I was about to be twenty one years old and in my Junior Year in college. My parents were dead years past and I lived in a furnished room off campus, supporting myself by working 35 hours per week in a liquor store. The Viet Nam War was heating up and the civil rights of Black people, then called “negroes”, was the big issue of the day thanks to the inspired leadership of Martin Luther King. My parents had been Leftists in both words and deeds, which of course influenced my political leanings, because I loved and admired them greatly. JFK had been the great hope for a country recovering from the conformity of the 50’s, but he was murdered. Yet working and going to school full time, dating and hanging out with friends, gave me little time for political activity. The year before I had attended the organizing meeting for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) on my college campus, but while I found the ideas stimulating, the organizer from national SDS seemed to be quite full of himself and an ass to boot. My economics professor had discussed Viet Nam disparagingly and predicted a costly war being pursued because of mineral rights off the coast of that country. His foreboding about the War proved to be correct. People peacefully demonstrating for an end to “Jim Crow” were being beaten and being murdered. The seamy underpinnings of our “exceptional” society were being exposed and the hypocrisy of it all was running rampant
Musically, the Beatles had pushed Folk Music somewhat to the side, yet there was still great popularity for it among the “intelligentsia”, or those who thought themselves “intellectuals”. The “enfant terrible” of folk music was of course young Bob Dylan, who scandalized the “folkies” when he moved to electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in Forest Hills Stadium. He released a song that year becoming his first single record to hit the “Top Forty” charts. I think this song ranks among his most prescient works and that I’ve used part of it to title this piece. The song was listed by Rolling Stone Magazine as the 332nd “Greatest Song of All Time”, but in my life it has had much greater influence. I was a young adult orphan, without the guidance and love of my parents, living in a world of ever-increasing complexity. Many of my generation, myself included, turned to popular music for guidance. The Bob Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” not only offered guidance for navigating this ever stranger land that America was becoming, but also predicted many of the “changes” to this country that we discuss here on this blog and to my mind achieves greatness because of Dylan’s foresight. Let me explain.
“Look out kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tiptoes
Don’t tie no bows
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows”
JFK’s murder was a game changer as far as many young people in America were concerned. Those like Bob Dylan and me, who had grown up in the stultifying, conformist 50’s, had already begun to look for an alternative to the “go along, to get along” nature of American Society. For Dylan and for me, our influences were the so-called “Beat Generation. The “beat” idea was that one needed to experience life in all its ways to break through the straitjacket of American conformity, which planned out our lives as we climbed the ladder of success towards a home in the suburbs, a perky wife and two kids. Exemplifying the “beat” idea was the writer Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg. They fell under the siren spell of the “open road” and experiencing the real America. They smoked pot and they used legal Benzedrine inhalers to get high. Some like writer William S. Burroughs went further and explored heroin. Much of the doings of the “Beats” and those who followed, were viewed dimly by Authority as challenging the status quo. The possibility of arrest and prosecution hung darkly over all the experiments in free living. Above Dylan references that threat and contemporaneously references the dawning psychedelic age where we would see a noted Harvard Psychology Professor, Timothy Leary, persecuted for his advocacy and distribution of LSD. Dylan saw the winds of change blowing as “Society” fought back against the outrage of behavior that did not conform to its norms. As with most non-conformity, the police powers of the State would be used to stop and discourage this refusal to conform.
The issue though was much greater than a small portion of the population using “drugs” to get a different insight on the world and to allow themselves sybaritic pleasure not conforming to public morals, or standards. We were at the onset of our country becoming an empire. A “freedom-loving” empire which was purportedly locked into a life and death struggle with an empire that represented all that was evil in the world. What is really being said is that the public presentation of the American worldview was akin to that of a TV weatherman, who pronouncements may be quite false. Our public policy propaganda, used to contain conformity of thought, was easily seen through and so you didn’t need Walter Cronkite to tell you the Viet Nam War was a sham.
Now almost 50 years later we also don’t need a weatherman to tell us how wealth has been winning the battle to shape our country to their interests and to make most of us serfs, living primarily to cater to their needs. Back then though, the phrase was a confirmation for me to trust little of what society was trying to sell me in terms of my life and to experiment with an alternative reality that could possibly give me better insight to what was really going on in life and in the world.
We also see in the words above the beginning of recognition of the “SWAT Team” police authority that exists today. However, while today’s police work has strayed further and further from its Constitutional underpinnings, the bald truth is that in various parts of our country this has always been true. Watch any old western that shows a Marshal cleaning up a town, like “My Darling Clementine,” “Dodge City” and the Academy Award winning “High Noon”, the see the mythology of policing that has been sold to us in this country and it certainly isn’t one that conforms to our Constitution. As this blog posts story after story of police abuses in the name of “law and order” “Look out kid, Don’t matter what you did, Walk on your tiptoes” is certainly sage advice for all of us, most especially those of color, different sexual preference and/or a non-conformist bent.
“Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the D.A.”
“Maggie” has always been Bob Dylan’s pseudonym for America. He used it in his song “Maggies’ Farm” as well. Above he references a darker America than we were led to believe it is, the black soot representing the darker side of this country. “Watergate” was to erupt 7 years later and gave us insight into what goes on behind the government’s closed doors. The “Church Committee’s” investigation of CIA’s operations showed the rampant lawlessness that that Agency has always operated under. “The Iran Contra Scandal” in the 80’s showed us even more. Today thanks to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden we see a government program under no one’s control but their own, recording every movement of the lives of all Americans.
In 1965 when Dylan wrote this song all we had were suspicions that the government was overstepping its Constitutional authority using “security” and “intelligence-gathering” as the justifying code words. Then too in 1965 there was no “War on Drugs” and no DEA. That waited for Reagan to not only institutionalize it but to help provide new legislation that expanded the “tools of the trade”. RICO was passed in a climate that was only slightly less fear-mongering than 9/11 leading to the passage of “The Patriot Act.” There were of course others, who had predicted the rise of today’s almost police state, but Dylan did it with mass appeal and one could say elegantly in its brevity.
My parents, Leftists though they were, also were children of immigrants from large families that had sought out the “American Dream” and had found a life so much better than that in Europe’s’ “Pale of Settlements.” Despite what they saw as wrong with America they loved this country and passed down that love of country to me and my brother. Because of that passed down love and the social studies/civics courses I took in school, there was a major part of me that didn’t want to believe what my brain told me was the real nature of what was going on in this country. Though I had watched the Army/McCarthy hearings, was a regular Edward R. Murrow viewer and I.F. Stone reader it wasn’t until JFK’s murder that I fully realized there were bad things happening way beyond the scope of partisan politics. JFK’s death was personal and the joke of the Warren Commission in its’ aftermath was a telling statement that powerful figures were acting behind the scenes and they weren’t benevolent wizards behind a curtain of government secrecy. More than our phones today are “tapped anyway.”
“Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in a trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off”
Back in the 50’s the drugs being mixed in the basement were of the amphetamine variety. The “Benzedrex Nasal Inhalers” we in your local drug stores, sold over the counter. They had to be broken up and combined to get the “medicine” Dylan refers to. However, by 1965 the drug of choice had become LSD, which also had to be mixed together from common chemicals. Today it is crystal meth, whose chemistry has been infamously celebrated in the current show, whose finale is on Sunday, “Breaking Bad.” “The War on Drugs” formalized a long government history of preventing people from “getting high.” While I certainly know the bad affects of addiction, having created an run more than a few addiction programs, I am also sadly too aware of the “anti-drug” movement’s long history, which currently dates back to the 1930’s and the end of prohibition. One prohibition official, Harry J. Anslinger bears most of the responsibility for creating an American War on Drugs. The real vision Anslinger had was that after prohibition would end he would be out of a job and Mr. Anslinger was in his government job for a long time because of his vision. He began the movement to ban marijuana and did so in a way that clearly was marked by racism as a selling point. He later succeeded in getting several studies that objected to the criminalization of users of substance to “get high” and he laid the groundwork for the false premise we hear even today that marijuana is a “gateway” to addiction. When in 1963 I first smoked marijuana it was a mind opening revelation. Alcohol didn’t mellow me out, nor did it leave me free from anxiety. It relaxed my inhibitions somewhat, but it also made me sick and unpleasant. Pot was different and there was a sense of mind expansion, but it was also quite illegal and thus brought on the anxiety of being caught.
It was, however, the after-effect of marijuana smoking that was seen by “the guardians of society” as dangerous. With new perspectives on the world, psychedelics also led one to question the values and motives of those in power. They bred a non-conformist outlook and in that was the real danger. The elite had a war to prosecute and a Corporate Military Intelligence Complex (CMIC) to be fed billions of dollars. The base unit of the enterprise was the young men who would serve as troops. These young men needed to be indoctrinated into the idea of an “Exceptional America” in order to risk their lives in whatever dubious enterprise our wise old men of foreign policy and war dreamed up. Thinking differently about the country and about life was an unacceptable option to their way of thinking and must be quashed. In this they found allies in the religious communities who saw “getting high” as evil. In truth from the perspective of both of these interest groups it was opting out of their “groupthink” which they found dangerous to their bottom lines.
“Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift”
Dylan’s verse above presents a encapsulated version of the life one was expected to live by those who ran the show. This was the “American Dream” in 8 short lines. It was what they were selling you and for most of us they were succeeding in their sales pitch up until the murder of JFK. That, unlike 9/11, changed everything. Suddenly, the processes of power in this country were a soupcon more open. Yes we elect a President, but that President in constrained by powers and forces about which we are only dimly aware. If the Constitution and the chain of command are ignored by those running things, what else is ignored and why should we accept it? This was the question fast reaching many young people’s minds in 1965 and this song was one, among many, that spoke to it.
“Look out kid
You’re gonna get hit
But loosers, cheaters
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin’ for a new fool
Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parkin’ meters”
This finally sums up for me where Dylan was coming from in this song. As individuals and as a collective of individuals who don’t want to accept the pablum spooned to us about this country we must be aware. While I knew George H. W. Bush was not to be trusted, I learned not to trust his successor Bill Clinton. While I knew that George W. Bush was not to be trusted I had hopes, now dashed, that Barack Obama would indeed bring change. What I see in American society paralleling Dylan’s verse, is that the entire political system should be distrusted because it has been polluted by the exigencies and wants of wealth. Bob Dylan, like John Lennon started out to become a Rock and Roll star like Elvis. They never really looked for more than that but the art they created was greater than them and it exposed the reality of the world around them. However, the mistake my generation made and indeed that I made myself is that we looked to them for guidance, when all they were really offering was prescience and insight. We must guide ourselves and to that end we must look skeptically on those who would “save” us, or “salve” us. As Bob Dylan said and as I try to follow in my own life:
“Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parkin’ meters”
Ponder the precise profundity of those two lines.
Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger
Please Note: I tried something different in this guest blog by not quoting the sources I used in its body. Also since I’m 69 years old some of my cultural/historical references might be obscure to a younger reader so I’ve provided links as well. You will find all the links to the sources of this piece below, beginning with a link to the entire lyric of this song.